– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
“There should be more women directing. I think there’s just not the awareness that it’s really possible. It is.” – Kathryn Bigelow
Recently I wrote an article highlighting ten excellent films that portray female characters in a realistic, non-discriminatory way. However, I realized something shortly after it was published. Out of the entire list, somehow I’d only included one film directed by a woman. Naturally I feel rather hypocritical because of this, seeing how in that same article I’d lamented the comparative lack of women being employed as directors.
Thus, this article seems necessary. If you’re hungry for more women behind the camera, here’s ten of the best to dig into.
- Patty Jenkins
Given the huge success of her recent film Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins is likely the most familiar name on this list. Seeing as my personal viewing of superhero films has been non-existent since 2013, however, I have nothing to say about that movie – aside from I’m astoundingly happy it gained box office success, that is. As soon as the film was announced I prepared myself for it to fail badly and then have swarms of studio executives blame its failure on the fact that it’s a female-led film, instead of, oh I don’t know, maybe the fact that up to that point DC had shown precisely zero ability to figure out what makes a good film and display zero understanding about what makes audiences …
Crap, let me take a breath.
Okay, getting back to my original point: Patty Jenkins. She rules. Her only other film (how?) was the excellent Monster in 2003. Wait, 2003? 14 years ago? How the freaking flip-flop does such an amazing filmmaker not get work for …
So Monster tells the true story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, played extraordinarily by Charlize Theron. Therein lies the film’s strongest suit. The pairing of Theron and Jenkins was a match made in heaven, with Jenkins’ direction and screenplay together pulling the best possible work out of Theron, resulting in a portrayal considered by many to be among the best performances ever recorded on film.
Jenkins seems primed to next tackle the Wonder Woman sequel, but hopefully somewhere along the way she gets to do another non-superhero story, if nothing else so I personally have something new from her to watch.
- Dee Rees
Female filmmakers are tragically rare. What’s even rarer? Black female filmmakers. Enter Dee Rees, who hails from Tennessee in the United States. Despite being quite young (at least as far as directors go) she’s already got four feature films under her belt. Her most popular film so far has likely been 2015’s Bessie, a biopic about legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, whom you should absolutely Google or YouTube right now.
The film was a big success, even scoring four Emmy awards, including one for Outstanding Television Film, and garnering Rees herself a nom for Outstanding Directing.
Rees is showing no sign of slowing down. Her newest film Mudbound was released this year. This film is set shortly after World War II in a small town in Mississippi and tells the struggles of a family who’ve recently moved there. It features an impressive cast including Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan, and is very high on my list of likely Oscar contenders this year.
- Kathryn Bigelow
Speaking of Oscars, the Academy Awards are frequently criticized for lack of diversity and for primarily awarding white men. To which I say, duh. The Academy can only award what the movie industry makes available, and the majority of what the American movie industry gives us is white men. Over and over again. Which is what makes Kathryn Bigelow exceptionally fascinating. After 81 years, she became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director.
While that reality may not help any argument that “the Oscars aren’t as bad as you think,” consider that Bigelow was also the first woman to win the BAFTA for Best Director, the Directors Guild Award, and the Critics Choice award for Best Direction, and is to date still the only one to do so. So again, industry problem. Mostly.
Aaaanywaaay, Bigelow has had a long and varied career, beginning with The Loveless in 1982, a film about a biker gang in a small American town. From there she tackled Near Dark (a vampire horror film), Blue Steel (a thriller), Point Break (a crime film featuring loads of violations of the laws of physics), Strange Days (a philosophical science fiction film), The Weight of Water (mystery), and K-19: The Widowmaker (a true life war film, which was an undeserving box office flop). Clearly this woman has great skill at making quality films across a wide range of genres.
Naturally though, her biggest success was with 2009’s The Hurt Locker, which aimed to be one of the most harrowing and realistic war films ever told. While obviously smudging or overlooking some important details (as all films do) it still manages to strike a chord with most viewers, and proves to be a truly disturbing experience. It was her work on this that earned her the Oscar and BAFTA and Guild award and Critic’s Choice, and on and on and on and on.
- Chantal Akerman
Let’s move away from America for a moment and into Belgium. Likewise, let’s move from mainstream films and into the field of more artistic fare.
A common trait amongst directors is to have a close working relationship with their cinematographer, and many times these collaborations become well known and celebrated (such as Ingmar Bergman with Sven Nykvist, Paul Thomas Anderson with Robert Elswit, or Steven Spielberg with Janusz Kaminsky), but there are very few examples of a female director having a powerful collaboration with a female cinematographer. Enter Chantal Akerman and her associate Babette Mangolte, who made at least two extraordinary films together. The most well known of these is the curiously named Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels.
(I love long films titles. See also A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty)
Full confession: after my first viewing of Jeanne Dielman I thought it was stunningly boring. Three hours and 21 minutes of a woman doing household chores, and little else. I actually watched it on fast forward to try to get through it faster. However, some time later I gave it another shot, and here’s what I learned from it.
The film is in one sense a psychological experiment. It follows the titular woman for three days, slowly drawing you into her dull and uneventful routine, over and over, until finally it begins dropping unexpected things on you. Things that seem minor or unimportant at first. For example, on one of the days she drops a spoon. Nothing more, but when you give the film your attention you realize the full import of that moment.
All in all, a very surprising and rather sobering look at the life of a housewife. Give it a go if/when you have 3½ hours to kill.
- Valerie Faris
It’s rare for a woman to helm a mainstream film, and even when it happens I discover most people weren’t aware of it. For example, Little Miss Sunshine. Everyone I know has heard of it, most of them are even aware it was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Its director? Valerie Faris, a then-47-year-old woman from California (co-directed along with her husband Jonathan Dayton).
After directing a film nominated for that award (along with three other Oscars), and that grossed an impressive $100 million, she and her husband next tackled the fantasy comedy film Ruby Sparks, which was released … eight years later? Come on Hollywood, she even works with a male director! Isn’t that enough to temper your rampant sexism? Why can’t you give her a job without delay, for f …
Agh. Not worth it.
Finally after another five years (oh lord) she helmed her third feature film, Battle of the Sexes, which recently found release. It has scored fantastic reviews to date, with many calling Emma Stone’s performance as real-life tennis player Billie King the best of her career. Time will tell if this (along with Dee Ree’s Mudbound) brings us another female nomination for Best Director.
- Agnès Varda
To prove to yourself that feminist and feminine are far from mutually exclusive, just watch any film by France’s beloved Agnès Varda, the most thoroughly feminine director I can think of. Married at a fairly young age (to a similarly legendary director, Jacques Demy), mother of two children, and who many times made films focusing on inherently feminine things. And yet, her films also made the viewer question certain perceptions and expectations. Take for example her film Cléo From 5 to 7.
Released in 1961, the movie takes place during one afternoon in the life of a singer as she waits to hear the results of a biopsy she’s undergone. As it follows her actions through the afternoon, it tackles existential themes while raising questions about the way women are perceived in French media. Varda fills up the shots with the latest fashions, frilly curtains, etc. Agnès Varda likes frilly curtains. So she uses them in her movie. And I say, good for her.
- Ava DuVernay
Back into the realm of directors who really should have scored more Best Director nominations than they have, we turn to Ava DuVernay. Like the previously mentioned Kathryn Bigelow, DuVernay has shown a powerful knack for making films across a whole spectrum of genres. Beginning in 2008 with This is the Life, a documentary on a specific art movement (which our editor Wendy Morley should totally consider writing about), she then branched into narrative film with I Will Follow, a drama dealing with how people deal with the death of loved ones.
Her third film also deals with loss, albeit in a different manner. Rather than losing loved ones in death, Middle of Nowhere focuses on the lives of women whose husbands have been sentenced to jail terms. With this film DuVernary became the first black woman to win the Directing Award from the Sundance Film Festival.
Since then she’s tackled a biopic of Martin Luther King Jr (in 2014’s Selma) and a documentary on race and the American prison system (13th, considered by many to be among the best documentaries ever made).
Thankfully, unlike many women directors, she has a full slate ahead of her. In addition to creating and producing the television series Queen Sugar, she’s also tackling the large-budget A Wrinkle in Time adaptation for Disney.
- Sofia Coppola
It can be hard for children to carve out their own identity instead of living in their parent’s shadow, and never is that more the case than when their parents are famous. It must be near impossible to do climb out when your father is one of the all time greatest directors in cinematic history and you take up the same profession.
And yet, Sofia Coppola has managed it. Rather than trying to ape her father’s filmography (or her mother’s, for that matter – a filmmaker in her own right), Coppola has developed her own distinct style that has earned her dedicated fans worldwide. Unfortunately for you, I’m one of them. So I’ll try to be as brief as possible, because otherwise I could be here all night.
After her debut The Virgin Suicides in 1999, she then became one of only three women at that point to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar for her work in Lost in Translation in 2003 (and also became one of the youngest-ever nominees), along with winning the award for Best Original Screenplay.
Another of her very strong films is the massively under appreciated Somewhere, from 2010. Outside of Italy (where it unanimously won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival) it was mostly shrugged off, especially in the United States where one reviewer claimed it “really is one of the daftest things I have seen for a long time.” I say ignore him. It’s a bloody good film.
Finally, rounding out her triumphs of prestigious award ceremonies and festivals, Coppola this year won the Best Director award from Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first woman since 1961 to do so. The film that scored her this honor (The Beguiled, a feminist retelling of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film) is very much worth a look from you.
- Ágnes Hranitzky
I don’t know why I follow so many directors named Agnes. I swear this wasn’t intentional.
One of the most powerful figures in Hungarian filmmaking is one Béla Tarr, who released one of the most challenging films ever made, the 7+ hour Sátántangó. Shortly after his success with that film, he formed a directing partnership with his film editor, Ágnes Hranitzky.
This partnership proved good for both, as it allowed Hranitzky to expand her range, and helped Tarr to make at least two of his finest films before retirement. Take for example their first collaboration, Werckmeister Harmonies, from 2000. As with Tarr’s earlier films, it is not an easily explained film, nor is it easy viewing. It shows us the lives of residents in an unnamed town in Hungary around the end of World War II. Depressed and desperately seeking diversion, many of them are excited by news of a traveling circus coming to town, one which claims to have a massive deceased whale as an exhibit. The film provides many opportunities for thought and examination, especially those of you with a fondness for music (the film’s very title is inspired by one of the musical conversations in the film).
Another film developed by this partnership is the very curious Turin Horse from 2011. The plot is derived from, of all places, the death of Friedrich Nietzsche. The story goes he saw a horse being brutally whipped, so he threw his arms around it to protect it, then went mad. Since no report tells us what became of the horse, Hranitzky and Tarr decided to make up a story and present it to us. What makes this film unique is that, even though it shows us many of the problems people in the world face, it offers no answers. As Hranitzky and Tarr explain, they finally realized that most problems are too complicated to satisfactorily fix, so rather than using the film medium to try to stir people to action for a cause, they opted to simply use film to make us aware of these problems and leave it at that.
As I said before, their work is not easy viewing, nor something you should watch when you simply want to relax after a stressful day.
- Claire Denis
How many women in film today can claim to have created a true classic? Not many. How many have made two? Very, very few. How many have done so at least six times?
Claire Denis can.
A clever film student, a passionate reader, and someone with sufficient travel to have a well-rounded view of the world, Claire Denis manages to make films on touchy subjects that never come off as crass, opinionated, or ignorant. Even from her debut in 1988 with Chocolat (not the corny Johnny Depp movie) she was able to tackle themes like colonialism and racism in Africa, but handles these themes in a realistic way without becoming preachy.
Another of her classics is Beau Travail from 1999, which manages to be the only war film I’ve ever seen without war in it. By dwelling solely on the peacetime lives of soldiers, it gives us a one-of-a-kind look at a soldier’s life and the stresses that come with it, outside of combat.
Fast forward to 2009 where she unveiled White Material, which stars the incredible Isabelle Huppert as a Frenchwoman who owns a coffee plantation in Africa, and her struggles to preserve her home in the midst of an erupting civil war and difficult family life. The film received huge acclaim and was named by the New York Times as being one of the 15 best films of the century so far.
Gaaaah I’m running out of space. I tried to limit how much I’d blather about Claire Denis. OK, if you’ve already seen these three by her, also see Nenette and Boni, The Intruder, and 35 Shots of Rum.
And there it is, I’m out of space. But before I finish, always remember the movie industry only makes the kinds of movies that people go see. So if you want there to be more movies by women and about women, then go see more movies by women and about women. If we all do this, then hopefully I won’t be writing articles like this anymore, because films directed by women will be the norm.